Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

’50 Writing Tools in Three Hours’

I just sat in on Roy Peter Clark‘s three-hour writing workshop at the Nieman narrative conference. I’ve heard Roy, my colleague at Poynter, talk about his “Writing Tools” book a dozen or more times, but I still learned something new today. Here are some of the tools I found most helpful:

“Get the name of the dog” — Dig for the little detail that adds color to a story. Sometimes, just saying, “Tell me about such and such,” can open a world of details.

— “Pay attention to names”— Names matter. Think about how good it makes you feel to hear someone call you by your name. Would you rather someone say, “Hey, you” or “Hey, Cindy”? Sometimes names can have a strange or interesting connection to a person’s past or profession — a mother who names her daughter after her own deceased mother, a race car driver aficionado whose last name is “Racer,” etc.

— “Tune your voice” — by reading your drafts aloud. When I have the opportunity to read my pieces aloud, I find words that sound awkward, overused, or unnecessary. I always used to wonder, “How the heck do I read a piece aloud if I’m sitting in the newsroom? The great writing coach Don Fry suggests picking up the phone and reading your piece. Your coworkers will just think you’re on the phone.

— “Reveal traits of character” — One of my editors told me about an exercise she did with a reporter. Both she and the reporter went to the same place and covered the same story. When they came back to the newsroom to compare what they had reported, they both had incredibly different notes. The reporter’s notebook was full of quotes from the people she interviewed. The editor’s notebook was full of scene, dialogue, and details about the place they had visited. She listened and observed more than she asked questions. Scene and dialogue put us in a story. Roy said today that “Dialogue is a form of action. A quote is heard, but dialogue is overheard.” So true.

— “Put odd and interesting things next to each other” — Doing so helps add variety and elements of surprise to a piece. When writing a piece during the session today, I wrote the sentence: “It couldn’t have been a coincidence that I crashed in front of the Crosspoint Baptist Church. On a road that is lined with five strip joints in a nine-mile stretch, I would have been more likely to crash in front of the Oz Topless Bar or Zona Erotica.” You wouldn’t think to put a church and a strip joint in back-to-back sentences, but doing so adds verbal variety to a story.

— “Save string” — Like most reporters, I have a list of stories I want to write. I can’t always get to them, but I save string and work until I get the ball I want.

— “Recruit your own support group” — It’s amazing how helpful positive reinforcement can be. Like most people, I thrive on feedback. Sometimes all it takes is asking an editor or a trusted colleague, “What works in this story? What needs work?”

— “Limit self criticism in drafts” (I would add to this “make deadlines for yourself) —

Often, the problem is our backspace button. We tell ourselves, “Oh, that doesn’t sound good. That doesn’t make sense. I need a more compelling lead,” and then we hit the backspace button. It’s tough to write through those thoughts, but when writing drafts, the space bar and enter keys are what move us forward.

When time permits, I find it helpful to scribble the lead to my stories on paper instead of on my laptop. There’s something about the hand-to-paper motion that engages me more in the material.

… Great session. Lots of writing, laughs, and guitar playing. More to come tomorrow.

‘Ten (Not So Secret) Tips for Effective Interviewing’

I’m here at the Nieman narrative journalism conference, blogging during some of the sessions I attend. I’m sitting in on Jacqui Banaszynski‘s tips on interviewing.

Here are some highlights:

— When interviewing, know your purpose.

— Interview people in their natural habitat as opposed to a coffee shop.

— Turn every subject into a storyteller.

— Believe that everyone you’re interviewing wants to talk to you. Map out why they’d want to talk to you.

— Use props and contrivances, and think of how you can put the subjects of your story in a different place and time. “Where were you when you found x out?” “What were you wearing?” Ask questions that put people somewhere, questions that help turn them into storytellers. This is especially important for people who are shy, awkward, etc.

— “There are no stupid questions. There’s only the stupidity of not asking a question.”

— One of the best interviewing questions is sometimes just “Really?” You want to keep a conversation going.

— We don’t listen enough in life. We often think/worry about the next tough question and don’t listen as much as we should during interviews.

— “If you can think of a question that helps the people you’re interviewing to think of their world in a different way,” that’s great. Sometimes people, especially celebrities and others who are interviewed a lot, get used to the same questions and therefore repeat the same answers.

— Always go back and interview a person … again and again.

— Say to the people you’re interviewing, “Tell me about your day.” Have them walk you through it.

— The goal is to be curious, to keep moving forward, and to not worry about your own discomfort.

— “Peel the onion.” Take one question and keep going. We often ask a question, get the answer, and move on to the next question. The truth is, there is always time to ask follow-up questions, and the follow-up questions are the ones that will illicit a story. “For every question, there are five more questions.”

— If you don’t know what to ask, then you can ask the “best” question: “Really?” or just “Huh.”

— We think during interviews we have to go straight to the heart of the matter. If you have the luxury of time, you can keep developing the heart of the matter during each interview.

— “Our job as journalists is not to know, it’s to find out.”

‘Creating An Investigative Narrative’

I’m here at the Nieman narrative journalism conference in Boston, sitting in on this morning’s keynote speech, “Creating An Investigative Narrative,” with Washington Post writers Anne Hull and Dana Priest. They are explaining the story behind their award winning Walter Reed series. It’s my first time blogging live from a conference, so bear with me. Feedback is welcome.

Some notes from their talk:

Hull and Priest focused on the army’s neglect and the treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Neither of them was prepared for the reaction, they said. They received hundreds of e-mails in response to the series.
“For the first time in my life I realized the true power we have as journalists to create change.” –Anne

Right from the start, they knew that if what they were hearing were true, it would be a big story.

Two real sources, they said, seemed like a lot to work with at first. They started a process that’s classic journalism — you start somewhere and you get more and more, and eventually you create a network of sources. At first they couldn’t see “the whole elephant.” Saw small pieces of the story and learned more throughout the process.

Investigative journalist (Priest) meets narrative journalist (Hull). Good learning experience.

What kind of access could they get? One source said, “Just come on up.” Immediately confronted with how far they could go. Could never lie about who they were. Couldn’t be in a position where someone would ask, “Well, who are you?”

Were given a map of Walter Reed so they could memorize it and figure out the layout of Walter Reed. Nothing was like she memorized it, though, Priest said. She had to stop three times and ask people on the road where the hospital was. Eventually, she learned there were two entrances. She was going through the back entrance, so everything was turned around.

Scheduling: “We pretty much lived and breathed that story for four or five months,” Hull said.

Two different “rhythms” between the two reporters. Different approaches to reporting.

When writing an investigative piece like this, you start off with people on the phone, meet them off-post, then you start interviewing them.

Hull and Priest talked with wives who were frustrated beyond belief about the treatment their husbands were getting.

The reporters needed to see things to substantiate what they were hearing about the poor conditions at the hospital. There’s an area called “the petting zoo” where the media are usually taken. They needed to get beyond that.

Didn’t quote anyone or take notes during first main interview. Just wanted to listen. “You penetrate one ring closer to where you need to be,” Hull said.

There were concerns that if they introduced themselves to soldiers, soldiers would tell commanders. There were always smokers outside of the Malone House, so Hull and Priest arranged for friends who smoke to come with them so they wouldn’t seem so out of place. They found the main subject, Josh, for their piece while he was outside smoking in the rain. “You’re literally and figuratively coming in from the rain,” Hull said.

Have to have empathy and respect, Priest said, for whatever culture you’re walking into. In immersion journalism, you don’t want to stand out, you just want to be a fly on the wall.

“The first time I heard about building 18, I just could not believe such a place would exist,” Priest said. “Cockroaches, President Bush. Mold, Donald Rumsfled. Democracy, Chaos in Iraq.” So much tension there.

The question became how they would verify what was going on in building 18, and how they would get in there. Priest and Hull were first taken to a room that didn’t look so bad. Soldier said there’s a lot of depression here and people aren’t doing well.

“We’re in an era of journalism where a lot of journalists are doing the talking,” Priest said. “The art of listening is so fundamental to what we do. If you have a heightened ability to do that, you can pick up so much.”

Patience is also key. In terms of building sources, you have to be patient. How do you do that? Two tracks: One is feeding the beast and doing daily journalism, the other is having a long-term project. Starting with easy questions, easy subjects, and working to the harder things is important. Took months for Priest and Hull to cultivate their sources.

Priest and Hull got into building 18. They had to find a way to get into the building and into the individual rooms. Priest had a camera. She said she whipped it out and quickly took pictures. The photos didn’t come out well, though. The photo staff was not impressed, Priest said, laughing. The thought of having a photographer come back with them seemed out of the question, but it worked.

Have to put everything in context — talk about soldiers at Walter Reed, then relate that to the army, then to the war in Iraq.

When you contrast the photo of that moldy room with that shining promise given to the soldiers, it’s eye-opening. Hull and Priest had to describe as much as possible from what they’d seen, not just from what they’d heard. They ate at the Red Lobster with the soldiers (the soldiers loved this restaurant), and spent hours and hours with them in their rooms. For every soldier in the story, Hull said, there were about 10 soldiers who called to tell their story.

“Oh by the way, we heard someone died last night.” A soldier would say this during a phone conversation with Hull or Priest. That would be something, then, for them to check out. Soldiers gave them tips, created an intense relationship.

“The tricks that people employed to survive were incredible,” Hull said. “It’s stuff you can’t find in medical records.” Asked people for their medical records once they got to know them.

Reporters have to drive their relationship with editors, have to determine what a story is and what it’s like. You have to do it with diplomacy and respect, but you’re the ones out there, and you know what the story is.

The lesson to me is you have to be diplomatic, be disrespectful, you have to give editors something because they’re going to talk to other editors about how you’re using your time, Priest said. It’s really important that reporters stay in the drivers seat regarding what’s happening with a story.

They didn’t think so much about creating a beautiful piece of writing, Hull said, so much as exposing what was going on. Showdown interview: In our world of writing, we usually have questions for people at the end — fact checking, making sure things are right. But Priest and Hull had to check everything with the army, even though they didn’t know the reporters had been writing this story. Called on a Monday or Tuesday before Sunday publication. Called in the nicest way, said they had a story they’d been working on, told them what the story was. General approach is to be friendly, you get a lot more out of it. They weren’t angry, didn’t know the Walter Reed that Priest and Hull had come to know.

Reporters sent 30 questions via e-mail to the army. “How many case workers do you have per soldier?” that kind of question. Gave them four days and considered a fair way to do it. Didn’t tell them about building 18. Priest and Hull were driven by an escort to the hospital. A parking spot was shoveled out for them, even though the area hadn’t been plowed for soldiers in wheelchairs.

What the military hates more than bad news is not knowing the bad news is coming. Told them about building 18 the Saturday before the first Sunday piece was published. “We wanted the full burden of what was going on to be in the paper,” Priest said. “We didn’t want to give them the chance to clean it up.” Wrote like crazy for three or so months, then spent a month writing together. “If I went two hours without talking to [Priest], it was really strange,” Hull said, laughing. “And it’s still really strange.”

… More to come at the next workshop.